There’s an intense amount of anxiety that comes along with any type of large family function, from holidays to birthdays or even funerals—I myself tend to break out in hives. That heightened anxiety is caught with clarity and humor in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, a story told in relative real time as a near college graduate must attend the shiva with her family. Considering her flexible direction in life—she tells her family she’s studying the business of gender—her lack of a boyfriend and not having plans for after she graduates, she’s already armed to be struck with pestering questions from family. She’s accustomed to prying hands that tuck hairs behind ears, smooth collars, and grab at her waist to comment incessantly on her weight loss. What she isn’t ready for is a run in with an ex as well a recent hookup to amp up the already stressful situation, in a film shot to purposely mimic the idea of the walls closing in on you.
Despite the death surrounding the day, Danielle’s (Rachel Sennott) started off well. It’s not until she reaches her parents and sees her ex Maya (played by an excellent and charming Molly Gordon) that things begin to crumble and the situation starts to get to her. Add to that the arrival of Max (Danny Deferrari) whose apartment she’d left earlier in the morning after being paid and, to her horror, accompanied by his wife Kim (Dianna Agron in a wonderfully tight lipped performance) and their young child, and no matter the practiced routine of inching out of families way and offering household favors as a means of disengaging, her distress is palpable.
In a clever use of deconstruction in imagery, the control that Danielle begins to lose is traced by her dress and loss of shallow composure—she first rips her tights and is forced to remove them which is quickly followed by the jacket in her attempt to send a seductive photo to Max (whether its to flirt or fluster is up to viewer). Then, while trying to gain upper power after a petty back and forth with Kim, where Kim is more gracious than the petulant Danielle deserves, a pot of coffee is dumped all over her white blouse. At the start of the film, Danielle is presented as cool and aloof and Shiva Baby gives us the affirmation of how quickly family can chip away at what you thought was your adult persona. To them, you’re still a whining mess and, in Danielle’s case as she pouts at her mother’s questioning and desperately asks them when they can leave while acting out and getting wine drunk, she’s exactly that. What makes Shiva Baby so instantly transcendent of some of its contemporaries is how much it acknowledges that, despite Danielle’s initial presentation, she’s still just a brat sometimes, one who likes to poke eyes and instigate until things crumble around her. No one in their early 20’s is composed—Shiva Baby see’s the natural hilarity in that alone.
Much of Seligman’s film works due to the committed performance by Sennot, who is just warm enough to offset some of her most difficult traits. Her demeanor at the shiva is defensive but accustomed, given a real life lived in performance as a young woman trying to get through the day. She and Gordon have palpable and electric chemistry, so much so that there could’ve been an entire film just about their relationship—past, present and future.
Written and directed by Seligman in her feature film debut, Shiva Baby is strikingly funny and prone to become an instant coming-of-age favorite. With a sexually assured bisexual protagonist who is a walking disaster as much as she is in control of her private life, it offers up a contemporary look at an early 20’s woman who isn’t as concerned about finding what she wants to do with the rest of her life as she is about what fib to spin to those who ask. There’s a charm to real life and contained drama—and Seligman finds the magic in those smaller, just as hilarious, just as mortifying moments.